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EDITORIAL/문화 & 예술 :: Culture & Art

Not So Evil Envy

Not So Evil Envy | English Columnist Hyeonji Shim

My nightly routine ends with my skillfully agile thumb scrolling past foods I can’t eat at the moment, adorable videos of puppers I can’t own and statuses I can’t make sense of. From this seemingly counterproductive use of time, I’ve naturally picked up on one particular quirk of the internet: an abundance of sad, but motivational, videos that garner a great deal of attention with a weird comment section. To be fair, comment sections on any popular online post should be avoided for the sake of my mental health and faith in humanity, but that’s not the kind of weird I’m talking about.

Take, for instance, a short documentary on my feed detailing the plight of poverty-stricken families in Southeast Asia, stripped of the most basic human needs. First, I learned watching heartbreaking videos before sleep was a terrible idea, and second, viewers reacted to such posts in a strange, albeit expected, manner. The comment section was flooded with sympathetic comments sending out thoughts, prayers and most importantly ‘likes’, but here was the weird part – all of a sudden, the viewers became awfully content with their lives.

So let me get this straight – people saw a tear-jerking video, showed sympathy and magically figured out how to truly appreciate life within 10 minutes, when philosophers failed to do so for centuries? I found it strange that someone’s “inferiority” portrayed in the documentary automatically granted viewers a newfound gratefulness for their relatively superior life. All this may seem normal; the video simply reminded the viewers to appreciate what they had, but at the core of the viewer’s contentment existed another being’s plight -- how valid is the contentment when the plight could easily become theirs? We are repeatedly taught that the key to happiness is being humbly satisfied with what we are given; works great in theory, wreaks havoc in reality.

The cliché “count your blessings” sure gets thrown around a lot without any repercussions, but let us carefully consider its implications. In a relative world in which “me” can only survive in “we”, everything exists in reference to each other. What is short without tall, and what is happy without sad? Once we establish that we cannot know what we have, lack and want without a reference point, the satisfaction derived from counting our blessings isn’t so innocent – it is the kind of filtered satisfaction that comes from knowing what you have that others don’t, but such mentality is the root of all trouble when you realize what you don’t have that others do, which is much more common given the psychology behind “grass is greener on the other side”. The group of viewers’ contentment is easily undone once they scroll down to see Beyoncé’s $135 million mansion on the same feed that displayed the documentary. Our take on satisfaction depends on unstable illusions, becoming vulnerable to crippling depression from insecurities when we inevitably encounter desires. What, then, is our next step? Think of a vaccine – a small amount of germs is injected into our body to prepare the immune system for future fights, without any exposure to disease symptoms. If insecurity is the disease, then envy must be the vaccine.

“Envy is evil” is a well-accepted concept, especially with biblical stories demonizing it as one of the seven deadly sins. Before questioning envy’s inherent wickedness, let us first define envy and jealousy – envy is “[desiring] a quality belonging to someone else” and jealousy refers to “having insecurities over relative lack of possessions in reference to a comparator”. Given that we are not saint-like beings stripped of negative emotions, jealousy will be regarded as an innate subset of envy for purpose of discussion, and the scope of discussion with regards to envy stays within reasonable boundaries, as anything in extremes is detrimental. With moderate usage, envy is potentially more effective than contentment in finding personal fulfillment, not a counterproductive emotion that feeds on ingratitude.

Desire is the most obvious byproduct of comparisons that provide reference points, and so envy is the derivation of a positive assessment of whatever quality is being desired. When the “count your blessings” method is intact, how does one act in presence of a positive asset not in possession? It is quite easy to succumb to a defeatist attitude because desiring what we don't have seems to directly go against the idea of being content with our inventory. Perhaps this is fine if one is truly content without the help of illusions that temporarily provide feelings of superiority, and forever believes that inventory expansion brings zero positive change. Unless you are a golden retriever, I am confident none of us fall within that category, especially when we exist via comparisons. The fleeting comfort provided by comparisons that favor us leads to lack of action and productivity in the moment, but defeatism and helplessness consume us when desires eventually join the party and we no longer feel favored. Contrary to what society preaches, being more upfront with the inevitable desire for what we don’t have could be the more stable way to fulfillment than trying to shift all the focus to what we have.

That is not to say recognizing the power of envy should automatically dismiss any sense of satisfaction, but it is valid if, and only if, the satisfaction remains constant in the event that viewers are the ones in the documentary. With the viewers’ mentality, lives of those depicted in the documentary must be dismal, stricken with fear from being part of the inferior, but this shouldn’t be true; the fates of those born into poverty are not sealed, and fulfillment should be established in absence of obvious blessings to count. With the viewers’ logic, the documented families don’t have anything from which their satisfaction can be driven and will only be envious.

So is appreciation for life a luxury, only applicable to those who can afford it? That can’t be true. This is where the “count your blessings” method fails – if desires are suppressed and blessings are taken away due to illnesses, accidents, business failures etc, unstable satisfaction disappears with ephemeral qualities. On the other hand, desires will always exist; envy derived from comparisons can be channeled into stable energy to create and work towards goals, a more sustainable source of satisfaction. Envy coexists with good assets, and the ability to recognize a good quality is the first and only step to eventually acquire said quality, a process that defines improvement. Neither counting blessings nor envy are inherently good or bad, but the former is overly praised without consideration of its consequences, and the latter is overly criticized. Before mastering the art of envy, our mental state will be susceptible to intense volatility -- fluctuations in insecurities and self-doubt, hating the spurts of motivation we thought would last; however, I’d much prefer to fire my shots in a trench warfare than to hide from no man’s land in endless stagnation. Building up one’s immune system with the envy vaccine is a slow, but active, process that hones resilience and stability. Relying on contentment from “blessings” to provide immunity against the very human disease of insecurities is all too naive -- it is the perfect set-up for a quick, destructive fall.  

Accepting envy instead of hastily shunning it can be the pillar of unwavering satisfaction regardless of whether you are the viewer or an individual portrayed in the documentary. Everyone desires, yet nobody wants or knows how to deal with envy. During my nightly routine on my phone, I want to see why it’s okay to envy without being called ungrateful or crazy; I want to learn when envy leads to motivation, and when it leads to unhealthy obsession. 1000 posts can tell me to to be happy with what I have, but I can’t possibly turn a blind eye to what I could have as a reward from breaking my shell of complacency. Say I live near a Gordon Ramsay restaurant I couldn’t possibly afford. I will frequently walk by with my $3.50 sandwich, dreaming and working for the day I order everything on the menu -- or I can avoid the restaurant at all costs such that I remain forever satisfied with my $3.50 deal of the day Subway sandwich; if I don’t know its allure, I can’t want it. A sheltered me, a content me and a grateful me would probably enjoy just the sandwich, but I’m going to take my shot at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant.


1. https://improvingslowly.wordpress.com/2017/11/07/acceptance-complacency/

4. http://lisapromise.com/key-success-ambition-competition/